An 'A' in Fraud | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

An 'A' in Fraud 

It was too good -- and too bad -- to be true. For three years, investigators conclude, Manual Arts High School administrators graduated ineligible students and tampered with students' grades

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002

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Greer's campus critics say he punished them for real, independent initiative -- saying they were not "team players" if they questioned decisions or delved into how the school raised and spent money, or even if they enforced academic standards by flunking students.

Two teachers filed legal claims, prompting settlements with L.A. Unified totaling about $130,000. Band director Bruce E. Cooke, a Jehovah's Witness, declined to lead the band in the national anthem, in keeping with his religious beliefs. Cooke, in his lawsuit, alleged that Greer fired him as band director, took away his instrumental-music classes and allowed him to teach only general music because Greer claimed "he needed a band director that would conduct the national anthem." (District officials said they had other complaints with Cooke's job performance, but would not elaborate.)

The other legal action was filed by former Manual Arts teacher C.C. Ryder, who had obtained substantial grant funding for a media academy. Disagreements arose over the academy, and also during Ryder's service as a teachers-union representative. Greer allegedly refused to provide Ryder an elevator key, even though a severe back injury made walking, let alone climbing stairs, difficult for Ryder. Nor would Greer obtain a special chair that a doctor had specified for Ryder, according to an official "accusation" filed in August 2000 by attorneys for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

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But even Ryder had grudging admiration for Greer's talent as a promoter. In August 1999, Greer appeared at a press conference with President Clinton in Washington, D.C. -- as an urban hero from the trenches. Soon after, he defended public schools on The O'Reilly Factor TV program. Greer took a pounding from pompous host Bill O'Reilly, who barely let him express a complete thought, but at least he was out there pitching. And less than two full years into Greer's principalship, state officials selected Manual Arts as a California Distinguished School. Newspaper accounts credited a decrease in suspensions, improved attendance, the academies, and all those new computers.

"I stand by my record of having led this school to be recognized by then-President William Jefferson Clinton as a 'beacon of hope' for inner-city high schools throughout the nation," commented Greer in his e-mail, "and having led to its being recognized as the first inner-city high school in the state to be recognized as a California Distinguished School."

Manual Arts would not qualify for this award today, however, because a school's portfolio also must include good test scores.

In 1997, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias took the helm of the school district with the motto "Student achievement: Our bottom line." Manual Arts immediately landed on Zacarias' list of the district's 100 worst schools, less than one year after being named a distinguished school, meaning that Greer was suddenly under unaccustomed pressure.

FOR MANY REASONS, MANUAL ARTS COULDN'T pull up its test scores -- the sine qua non for judging schools these days. Scores on the Stanford 9, the state's student-achievement test, remained low, even when compared to similar schools, as did scores on the SAT, which is used by college admissions officers. But in academic measures under the school's control, Manual Arts began a remarkable rise.

Dropouts virtually disappeared. And 100 percent of graduates completed all University of California admission requirements. By comparison, the rate at Beverly Hills High was 70 percent; at San Marino High, 67 percent. Manual Arts also reported that more than 80 percent of its graduates continued on to a two-year or four-year college. By comparison, the number of California college freshmen from L.A. Unified is only about 30 percent of the size of the district's entire graduating class.

In 1998, the last time L.A. Unified examined the numbers, a district researcher concluded that Manual Arts sent fewer students into the UC system than did any other district high school. Just one year later, Manual Arts reported that every single graduate had completed all UC entrance requirements.

Grade inflation or its near twin -- the dumbing down of academic standards -- could explain how some students were acing college-prep classes while performing so poorly on standardized tests measuring their knowledge.

To this day, the school district has never examined -- or even questioned -- why statistics controlled by the school varied so remarkably from those that were not. District officials apparently noticed the discrepancies only when they were pointed out by the Weekly.

But other matters had, in fact, caught the attention of the district hierarchy, which launched a confidential probe of Manual Arts in September 2000, looking into alleged financial impropriety and grade-changing. The Weekly broke news of the ongoing but hushed-up investigation last August. Nearly two years later, no official findings have been released, although some information has leaked out or been provided in response to repeated queries from the Weekly.

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